Most people probably don't consider a six-month dental checkup particularly inspirational, but for Bill Witherspoon, a trip to the dentist's chair prompted the development of a unique lighting technology called SkyCeilings. Produced by Witherspoon's company, the Sky Factory, Fairfield, Iowa, SkyCeilings are photographic images of real skies that fit into standard drop-ceiling grid systems and feature the company's own light box to illuminate the translucent images from behind.

“I think almost everyone has had the experience of lying in a confined space, such as a hospital bed or the dentist's chair, and counting specks on the ceiling,” says Skye Witherspoon, Bill's son and product developer for the Sky Factory. “Situations like these are what spurred this product's invention.”

The system is comprised of three parts: Luminous SkyTiles, SkyTile Elevators, and fluorescent or LED lamps. The tiles are high-resolution photographic images on translucent acrylic or polycarbonate panels that the company says meet or exceed all national and international fire-safety codes. The elevators, which are square or rectangular aluminum frames that snap into the T-bar cells of a ceiling grid system, raise the tile 1¼ inches above the ceiling grid to create a 3D support structure that mimics a real skylight.

“I think that when people see our product it's always a big surprise,” notes Skye Witherspoon. “A lot of people are fooled by the illusion of nature we create. People have entered a building that has a SkyCeiling, looked up, and been dumbfounded. They said, ‘I was just outside a few minutes ago, and it was cloudy. What's going on?’”

According to the company, SkyCeilings fit into standard 2-ft × 2-ft, 2-ft × 4-ft, 60-cm × 60-cm, or custom grid systems. Although a rectilinear shape is the most common, other choices include circular and elliptical. Available in thousands of images, the product uses either 6,500-Kelvin daylight-balanced T5 fluorescent lamps or 6,500-Kelvin daylight-balanced LEDs. All T5 fluorescent systems can be fitted with an optional dimming system that can include manual, remote, or programmed switching. Furthermore, a digitally addressable lighting interface (DALI) can be programmed to produce a range of lighting effects, including the ability to program the product at any latitude and longitude to follow the rising and setting of the sun as well as track the seasons. Applications for this feature include hospital ICUs where it is important to reinforce or re-establish circadian rhythms to promote healing. In nurse's stations, casinos, and other 24-hour environments where a high level of alertness is needed, the process can be reversed — triggering the affect of midday in the middle of the night.

Designed for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) suites and other shielded environments required to be radio frequency interference-free, the LED model offers up to approximately 100,000 hours of operating life. “Although our LED system was developed for this specific type of environment, we have started to see a demand for it in commercial or residential facilities,” says Skye Witherspoon.

Dr. Cheryl Kantor-Goldenberg, a dentist whose private practice is located in mid-town Manhattan, says the SkyCeilings installed in her office serve as a distraction while patients are receiving dental treatment.

“They elevate my office ambience to a spa-like level,” she says. “I've had people actually come in who didn't have an appointment but just wanted to sit and look at them for a while.”

Kantor- Goldenberg says she ordered the SkyCeilings because she thought they were beautiful, but didn't anticipate how calm they would keep her staff.

“My assistant and I completely credit them with the lessened frenetic activity that we've noticed during the past four years since we've been working in our new office,” she adds.

Pricing for a standard luminous T5 SkyCeiling from 4 square ft to 16 square ft begins at $105 per square ft while the cost per square ft for the LED system from 4 square ft to 16 square ft is approximately $175 plus $415 for the DC low-voltage power supply.

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